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Examples of merisms in English


A rhetorical term for a pair of contrasting words (such as near and far) used to express totality or completeness. Also, a type of synecdoche: using the parts of a subject to describe the whole.

British linguist John Lyons introduced the term complementary to describe a similar device: a dichotomized pair that conveys the concept of a whole.

See also:


From the Greek, "divided"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Young lions and pumas are marked with feeble stripes or rows of spots, and as many allied species both young and old are similarly marked, no believer in evolution will doubt that the progenitor of the lion and puma was a striped animal."
    (Charles Darwin, The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex, 1871)

  • "There is a working class--strong and happy--among both rich and poor; there is an idle class--weak, wicked, and miserable--among both rich and poor."
    (John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive, 1866)

  • "Most people, including most academics, are confusing mixtures. They are moral and immoral, kind and cruel, smart and stupid--yes, academics are often smart and stupid, and this may not be sufficiently recognized by the laity."
    (Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Harvard Univ. Press, 2001)

  • "It may very well be that the Bible, as organized, functions as a merism, beginning in Genesis with Eden lost and ending in Revelation with the 'New Jerusalem' gained, these two referring to the entirety of human history and representing the 'Alpha and Omega' (Rev. 21.6) of God's sovereignty. Revelation 11.17 extends merism to the triadic 'one who is, was, and is coming.' Finally, while it may be to stretch a point, it might be said that the 'Old Testament' and the 'New Testament' form a merism that represent all of God's word and the 'Bible' as totality."
    (Jeanie C. Crain, Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Polity Press, 2010)

  • "Personal 'now' refers to the moment of utterance (or to some period of time which contains the moment of uterance). The complementary demonstrative adverbs 'there' and 'then' are negatively defined in relation to 'here' and 'now': 'there' means 'not-here' and 'then' means 'not-now.'"
    (John Lyons, Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995)
Also Known As: universalizing doublet, merismus, complementary
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